Alabama lawmakers who sponsored and voted for the state’s new immigration enforcement legislation call it the toughest such law in the country, and they’ll get no argument from farmers, who say they suffered harvest losses this year because they couldn’t find enough workers to pick their crops.

Farmers across the state reported that workers left because they feared harassment under the new law or have family members who are undocumented.

Much of the law went into effect on Sept. 1, but provisions requiring all Alabama employers to use the federal E-Verify system won’t become effective until April 1, of 2012.

The law makes it a crime to employ or assist an illegal immigrant in remaining in the country. And, while the law continues to be challenged in federal court — and certain portions have been blocked — almost all of those affecting Alabama employers remain in place, and farmers are feeling the brunt.

The U.S. Justice Department is among those asking the appeals court to temporarily block the law, calling it a “blunt instrument” designed to “drive aliens out of the state.”

Farm labor shortages have been experienced in the state this year and many crops have gone to waste because of it, says Mac Higginbotham, commodity director for the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Even before the new law, says Higginbotham, it was difficult to find farm labor. “We just don’t have many people who apply for agricultural jobs, and it has always been a constant struggle for growers to hire and try to maintain a skilled workforce. It’s hot work, it’s difficult work, and most people just don’t want to do it,” he says.

Most specialty crop producers, he adds, are hiring for only a short period to begin with, making the situation even more difficult.